Bennett College Graduation

Graduates cheer during commencement ceremonies at Bennett College in Greensboro, N.C., on Saturday, May 4, 2019.

(I've updated this post once below.)

Back in the spring, Bennett College announced that it had put together a committee to take a good hard look at the school.

The Bennett Re-Engineering Committee was made up of 19 local, state and national leaders, a group that includes four alumnae and several Greensboro residents. The two co-chairs are Tom Ross, a Greensboro native who’s the former president of both the UNC System and Davidson College; and Yvonne Johnson, a former Greensboro mayor who’s still on City Council as mayor pro tem.

The BRC’s mission: suggest a path for a financially troubled school that’s clinging to its accreditation while holding onto the Bennett brand — that is, its identity as a women's college and an historically black institution.

In June, long before the committee filed its final report, Bennett’s trustees re-engineered the president’s office. President Phyllis Worthy Dawkins departed. A re-engineering committee member, became the college’s interim president. (Gwendolyn O’Neal also was a Bennett alum and a retired UNCG professor; she’s now the college’s chief operating officer.) A new president, Suzanne Walsh, was announced six days later. She started work Aug. 1.

I thought the BRC might be a casualty of the C-suite shuffle. But when I talked to Johnson in June after I heard of Dawkins’ departure, she said the committee was still meeting and remained on target to meet its mid-September deadline.

It turns out Johnson was right. The committee presented its report to Bennett’s trustees Friday morning.

“As a proud Bennett Belle, I could not be more excited for this moment,” Johnson said Friday afternoon to an audience of Bennett students, employees and alumnae who had gathered in the college chapel. “It was worth every bit of the work. It was important to everyone on the committee to keep Bennett alive and thriving. That’s what we want to do.”

The college won’t make the report public. (I asked.) A spokeswoman for the college said it’ll stay private “due to the confidential nature of some of the information it contains.” But I cobbled together the following from a news release and a video of the committee’s presentation I mentioned above.

The 75-page report contains recommendations around four main themes:

1. Stabilize the college’s finances — by raising more money and spending less — and secure accreditation. In surveys and focus groups, Bennett stakeholders (students, alums, employees, etc.) identified those are the college’s top two issues.

2. Strengthen the college’s leadership and governance — the board of trustees and the presidency. Ross said both are strong, but the BRC recommended some improvements. Ross had high praise for Walsh, now in her second month as president. She “provides the right person at the right time to lead this institution,” Ross said. “I’ve gotten to know Suzanne Walsh, and I think she’s an extraordinary person with a great deal of experience and background and is the kind of person who can lead Bennett through this period in its history.”

3. Increase enrollment and improve student success. (Ross didn’t use the words “graduation” and “retention,” but I assume that’s what he’s talking about here. According to 2018 U.S. Department of Education data, only about half of Bennett’s first-year students from the year returned for their sophomore years, and only a third graduated in six years.)

4. Hire and train stronger faculty and staff.

“I actually think this report should be subtitled ‘tough love’ because that’s really what this is,” Walsh said Friday. “There’s some tough stuff in there, but it comes from a place of love for this institution and its students.”

Walsh said the college is already doing five things to address these recommendations:

1. On Aug. 2, her second day on the job, Walsh convened what the college is calling a “finance summit” to develop a five-year financial model for Bennett. (It was developed by Martin Eakes, the founder of Self-Help, the community development lender in Durham, and a BRC member.) The college also is reviewing vendor contracts for possible savings.

2. Bennett will come up with a new enrollment management plan to bring in more first-year and transfer students. Walsh called this plan “aggressive” partly because Bennett is trying to bring in new students in the spring 2020 semester. Most schools target recruitment efforts for the fall semester, but “we can’t wait till the fall,” Walsh said.

3. Bennett is examining the use of its campus facilities. (Walsh didn't get into details here, but the campus is showing its age. Bennett has built only two new buildings and refurbished one in the last decade, and much of the campus dates back to World War II or before. At least two dorms weren't used last year, and I suspect there's a lot of unused space on campus.) An update of its campus master plan will follow.

4. The college will strengthen partnerships that let Bennett students take classes at other area universities. STEM subjects are popular, Walsh said, but Bennett doesn’t always have the faculty to cover all the courses it wants to offer. Bennett will continue to build on STEM, journalism and social work programs, which are the college’s most popular majors.

5. Each college department will do a self-study in preparation for possible changes ahead.

My take? I didn’t see anything radical or dramatically different in the broad strokes. Finances, enrollment and accreditation are the three-headed monster Bennett has been battling for some time, and it's apt that the BRC put them at the top of the college's to-do list. 

Ross and Walsh, meanwhile, asked their Friday afternoon audience to be patient. It will take time, they said, for the college’s trustees and leaders to read and react to the full report. Change will take even longer.

Ross said Bennett has “something unique to offer to young women” and remains bullish on one of only two historically black women’s colleges in the country.

“It’s not over. It’s not an easy road,” Ross said. “There’s a lot to be done for Bennett to be the place that we all want it to be.”

For more details, click here for the news release about the BRC report. And here’s a video (it starts at the 23-minute mark) of the report presentation to the Bennett community.

Update, 3:30 p.m. Tuesday: I added the "tough love" comment from Suzanne Walsh above. It was in an earlier draft of my story but didn't make the final version as it should have.

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